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The Ultimate Fighting Championship should probably start looking over its shoulder right about now because Bellator MMA is coming -- not today or tomorrow, not next month or next year, but the Scott Coker-led promotion is coming.
It starts quietly and slowly ramps up, and before you know it, you’re looking over your shoulder when it’s too late. You can shrug off Bellator as a non-threat, but sooner or later, it will be nipping at your heels if you aren’t careful, and the UFC (online sportsbooks) better start paying attention because Bellator isn’t here to compete; it’s here to win.
Right now, it all sounds a little ridiculous to think that Bellator can actively compete with the UFC. The same was said in the mid-1990s when World Championship Wrestling sought to compete with the World Wrestling Federation. However, steps were slowly taken to snare away the recognizable talent from Vince McMahon’s clutches while welcoming some of the other talent that didn’t get its just due. It took a little bit of talent, a lot of ingenuity and a whole lot of money for the Ted Turner-Eric Bischoff plan to truly take off. When it did, it was almost too late for the House that Vince McMahon Built to recover.
Fortunately for the UFC, professional wrestling’s outcomes are scripted. The emergence of the New World Order in WCW was a well-executed plan that required scripting that bordered on reality. Mixed martial arts doesn’t have that kind of luck. The outcomes are random, no matter how lopsided the matchups appear to be. Surely, Coker would like to see his expensive signees flourish under the Bellator banner so the audience attaches itself to the fighters and automatically picks a side in a battle that truly hasn’t started yet.
Yet the seeds are being planted. The recent signing of Chael Sonnen may not seem like a big deal because Sonnen isn’t necessarily the guy who will shake the planet off its axis with his skill in the cage. However, his mouth is essential in helping Bellator build its brand. It’s similar to how Bellator inked Rory MacDonald. No, he’s not going to talk his way into mainstream interest, but his skills give the MMA promotion another pound of legitimacy.
That’s the mix Bellator is going to need to use as it attempts to take down the juggernaut known as the UFC. It needs a little bit of razzle dazzle -- that comes in the form of fights between colorful characters, fights at which hardcore MMA fans often roll their eyes -- paired with adding a lot of legitimacy by building its own stars and adding talented martial artists who can fight.
Although the UFC doesn’t necessarily see it, there are chinks in the armor, and they are growing into visible cracks. The Reebok deal and fighter pay are not things the UFC can continue to ignore. Al Iaquinta’s latest declaration that he’s willing to walk away if this contract isn’t handled to his liking shouldn’t be taken in jest. Sure, the UFC doesn’t need him, but if he’s audibly unhappy and actually does jump the fence to Bellator, how many unhappy fighters will follow him?
The roof is leaking, and the UFC isn’t paying it any mind. Even worse, it isn’t trying to fix it. Instead, the company is chugging along as usual and ignoring the fact that a problem exists. That leaky roof will eventually yield water damage and mold, and everyone living under that roof will question whether they should be living there. Yeah, it’s a big house, but across the street is a smaller house with better living conditions. Eventually, that smaller house will add on and be just as imposing as the big house; and just when the small house catches up, the big house will finally realize that the leaky roof is about to cave in.
We’re a long way from the roof caving in on the UFC, but if it isn’t paying attention, it can happen sooner than later. If the UFC doesn’t find a way to keep Phil Brooks under its umbrella by having him compete for Titan Fighting Championship, Victory Fighting Championship or some other regional promotion it has signed to Fight Pass, it is going to watch Bellator steal him from under its nose. The smart thing would be for “CM Punk” to headline a regional card on UFC Fight Pass. It prevents him from delegitimizing the UFC because clearly Punk isn’t close to ready for that level of competition. However, it keeps him with the UFC and helps boost Fight Pass subscriptions, as his fights will be broadcast there until he is ready to compete in the UFC again.
However, if the UFC allows Punk to walk? Whew. That’s just asking for trouble. Bellator has no shame in bringing in Punk for a fight. It Will Garner interest regardless of how you view him getting another major fight, and every little bit counts.
Sooner or later, if the UFC isn’t careful, a “big” name will defect and the war between MMA promotions will begin. The tipping point won’t be Sonnen, MacDonald or Benson Henderson. The tipping point will be a combination of new signees, established talent, ingenuity and a careless UFC that doesn’t plan for the future. Nobody stays on top forever.
Andreas Hale is the editorial content director of 2DopeBoyz.com, co-host of the boxing, MMA and pro wrestling podcast “The Corner” and a regular columnist for Sherdog.com. You can follow on Twitter for his random yet educated thoughts on combat sports, music, film and popular culture.